An Overview of Rock-cut Coptic Sites in Asyut
This research is an attempt to provide an overview of some of the most remarkable rock-cut monasteries in Asyut Governorate. The Asyut plateau was a suitable area for monastic settlement as it is bordered on the east and the west with mountains flanking the agricultural land. Only four sites were selected for this study. They are, from north to south: Dayr al- Mu’allaq or Dayr Mar Mina al-Agaybi (literally, the ‘Hanging Monastery’), Dayr Durunka, the churches of Dayr Rifa, and Dayr al-Ganadla. Dayr Mar Mina is located on the eastern side of the Nile, while the other three sites, namely Durunka, Rifa, and al-Ganadla, are located on the western side. The caves and rock cuts in these mountains provided hermits and monks with ready-prepared isolated shelters just adequate to their needs.
The objective of this short overview is to shed light on the importance of this type of monastery and church, examples of which are scattered along the Nile Valley in Asyut. They provide important evidence and comprise elements that are of equal significance to other monasteries throughout Egypt.
The ancient Egyptian quarrymen were clever in extracting blocks of stones from different kinds of rocks that were accessible in Egypt. They used the limestone hills deposited from Cairo to Esna along the Nile Valley to obtain limestone blocks for construction and ornamental purposes such as temples, tombs, sarcophagi, and statues (Harrell and Storemyr 2009: 8). These hills also functioned as sites for rock-cut tombs.
Mostly, the quarrying started in the form of open pits and trenches, and then continued into the mountains to produce caves or large galleries. To support these galleries, rock pillars were left to carry the roofs (fig. 27.1). The quarrying of hmestone was achieved by using copper (and later bronze) chisels and picks. These tools did not change from the Dynastic Period until the Late Period.
This basic process ofsoftstone (limestone and sandstone) quarrying remained unchanged through the ancient Egyptian and Roman periods, but the picks and chisels were later made of iron. Hammered iron wedges were also used occasionally to split hmestone and sandstone (Harrell and Storemyr 2009: 29).
Limestone quarrying was active all along the Nile Valley: eighty-nine ancient quarry sites are known (Harrell 2012: 6). It is worth mentioning that some thirty-six ancient quarry sites are known on the east and west sides of the Asyut area alone. Later on, many of the limestone galleries, especially in Minya and Asyut, were transformed into Coptic Christian hermitages and monasteries, and some of them are still functioning today (Harrell and Storemyr 2009: 29).
Locations of Reference Sites in Asyut
Asyut Governorate is located almost in the middle of Egypt (about 375 kilometers south of Cairo) between the coordinates 27°ll’00″N / 31°10′ OO’E and 27.18333°N / 31.16667°E. It stretches for about 120 kilometers from north to south along the Nile River and is bordered on the east by Asyut Eastern Mountain, on the west by Asyut Western Mountain, on the north by Minya Governorate, and on the south by Sohag Governorate. Nowadays it is considered the most important city of Upper Egypt.
On the Eastern Mountain, Dayr Mar Mina is located near al-Ma‘abda (27°21’27.49″N / 31° 0’43.08″E). It belongs to the Diocese ofAbnub and al-Fath. It is about 35 kilometers northeast of Asyut city and located at an elevation of 170 meters above ground level. It was established in ancient Egyptian quarries, utilizing a big cave in the mountain.
On the Western Mountain, the other three referenced sites are located from north to south: Dayr Durunka, Dayr Rifa, and Dayr al-Ganadla, respectively.
Dayr Durunka belongs to the Diocese of Asyut. It is situated on Durunka Mountain, above the village of Durunka (27°6’44″N / 31°10′ 5″E). It is about eleven kilometers southwest of Asyut and located at an elevation of 100 meters above sea level. It is where the Holy Family visited during their flight into Egypt, according to Coptic tradition.
The churches at Rifa also belong to the Diocese of Asyut and are located about four kilometers south of Dayr Durunka. They are situated on the cliffs of Durunka Mountain. Rifa churches lie at 27° 4’29.16″N / 31°H’5 72″E and at an elevation of 66 meters above sea level. The cliff churches of Dayr Rifa are not regarded as a monastery, but they reuse ancient Egyptian tombs.
Dayr al-Ganadla belongs to the Diocese of Abu Tig. Its coordinates are 26°56’38” N / 31°17’49” E. It is located at an elevation of 54 meters above sea level. It was established in ancient Egyptian quarries that he to the west of the village of al-Ganadla, about 25 kilometers southwest of Asyut and about 30 kilometers south of Durunka.
General Geological Setting
Along the Nile Valley, nearly all the limestone came from Tertiary formations (mainly Eocene). Generally, the ancient quarries located in the hills and cliffs border the Nile Valley between Cairo in the north and Esna in the south (Harrell and Storemyr 2009:15).
The geological setting of the Asyut area represents a part of the Nile Valley zone of Egypt. The carbonate succession in this area is subdivided mainly into the Minya and Durunka formations (Klitzsch, List, and Pohlmann 1987) (fig. 27.2).
Dayr Mar Mina is located at Gebel Abu Foda. The rocks of Gebel Abu Foda belong to the Minya formation. This formation was introduced by Said (1961). It also underlies the Salamut formation (Bishay 1961) and overlies the Thebes formation.
This formation was thought to be Middle Eocene (Said 1960), but Boukhary and Abdelmalik (1983) put this formation within the late Early Eocene time span. The thickness of the Minya formation ranges from 35 meters to over 80 meters (Issawi, el Hinnawi, and Mazhar 1999). It is formed of hard bedded limestones and ranges in color from white to gray (Klemm and Klemm 2001: 638).
Microscopically, the rocks of the Minya formation are fine- to mediumgrained wackestone and packstone to less often grainstone, with mainly echinoids and foraminifera (especially alveolinids and nummulitids) and lesser amounts of other invertebrates and non-skeletal peloids. It is essentially non-silty/sandy, non-clayey, and non-dolomitic, but slightly to moderately siliceous with silt-sized quartz grains (Harrell 2012:14).
Dayr Durunka, Dayr Rifa, and Dayr al-Ganadla are located in Gebel Durunka, which belongs to the Durunka formation. This formation was first described by El-Naggar (1970). It overlies the Minya formation.
The thickness of the Durunka formation ranges from 35.5 meters to over 133 meters. It is composed of Lower Eocene limestone: hard, crystalline, massive to thin laminated limestones (Khalifa et al. 2004: 236).
Its color ranges through grayish white, yellowish white, white, and snow-white. Microscopically, it is represented by grained mudstone and grainstone to mainly wackestone and packstone, with primarily foraminifera, echinoids, and non-skeletal peloids, and lesser amounts of other invertebrates, mostly bivalves, gastropods, and calcareous algae. It is essentially non-silty/sandy and non-dolomitic, but occasionally clayey (marly) and slightly to moderately siliceous with few detretal grains (Harrell 2012:15).
Dedication of the Monasteries
The four sites are dedicated to two of the most popular saints in Egypt. Durunka, Rifa (one church), and al-Ganadla are dedicated to the Virgin Mary and located on the western side of the Nile. The annual festival of the Holy Virgin is celebrated in August (7 to 22 August).
Dayr Mar Mina is located on the east side of the Nile and dedicated to St. Mina. He is well known as ‘the miraculous’ because of the countless miracles God performed through him over the centuries. The Coptic Church commemorates his martyrdom on 15 Hatur and the dedication of his original church on 15 Ba’una (Atiya 1991b).
It is noteworthy that one of the churches of Dayr Mar Mina is dedicated to the Virgin Mary together with the Archangel Michael. The annual celebration at the monastery is from 8 July to 8 August.
Review of Historians’ Accounts
The oldest mention of the rock-cut monasteries of Asyut is by Abu Salih in the twelfth century. He mentions only the churches and monasteries at Rifa and Durunka. In the fifteenth century, al-Maqrizi visited and mentions Dayr Mar Mina, Rifa, and Durunka.
However, the monasteries at Rifa and Durunka that are mentioned by al-Maqrizi are not, in fact, those mentioned by Abu Salih (Evetts and Butler 1969: 214). In the seventeenth century,Vansleb (1672) refers to Dayr Mar Mina, Rifa, and Durunka (Vansleb 1678). In the meantime, other travelers, such as Claude Sicard (1677—1726), refer to Dayr Mar Mina (Sicard 1982b). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Dayr Mar Mina is mentioned by Richard Pococke (1704-65), John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875), and Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-84) (Pococke 1743;Thompson 1992; Loeben 2008).
Description of the Churches
The four sites each contain two churches. Some of these churches are completely quarry or tomb rock-cut and some are partly rock-cut and partly masonry structures. Each monastery has a specific character. Two of the four sites (Durunka and al-Ganadla) are associated with the visit of the Holy Family to Egypt (Meinardus 1963: 55-56).
Dayr al-Ganadla is characterized by its unique mural paintings (for detailed descriptions of the paintings, see Buschhausen and Khorshid 1998; van Loon 2004; Gabra and van Loon 2012). Dayr Mar Mina is unique because of its elevated location, about 170 meters on a cliff, whereas the churches of Rifa are a unique example of reused ancient Egyptian tombs.
At Dayr Mar Mina, two churches are established between two massive rocks and are located in the cliffs of Gebel Abu Foda, just above the village of al-Ma‘abda (Cruz-Uribe 2004). The first church is situated in a big quarry, rock-cut in the mountain. Inside the church there is a carved altar dedicated to Mar Mina. The second church is named after the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael.
This church is also a rock-cut quarry in the mountain. To the north of the second church there is an ancient keep situated in rocks lower down. This keep is partly built of brick and partly rock-hewn, and is divided into three fioors.
The first floor is mainly occupied by cells for the monks. The second floor consists of three rooms used as a sacrificial hall in honor of the saint. The third floor leads to the top o the keep, where the two churches of the monastery are located. Also, there are two modern buildings constructed beside the ancient keep.
Dayr Durunka is also called the Monastery of the Virgin. The site was excavated by A. Kamal in 1916 and produced some finds that date back to the ancient Egyptian and the Coptic periods. The monastery consists of two separate rock-cut quarries. The old church is named after the Virgin Mary (fig. 27.3 C). The west end of the church is a rock-cut quarry, w 1 e the eastern part is constructed upon an artificial platform.
The second church is dedicated to the Archangel Michael (fig. 27.3 B). The plan of this church is traditional: the western division is for women then comes the division for men, followed by the khurus, and at the end there is the haykal. The northern altar is dedicated to Anba Bishoi and the central one to the archangel.
The six eastern areas of the church are covered with brick domes. The rest of the church, westward, is roofed with beams on which are laid reeds covered above with flat mud bricks (Clarke 191 : 175).
The rock-cut churches are adjacent to modern buildings that were built on the slope of the mountain to serve as accommodation for pilgrims. Although this monastery has no ornamental elements, it is one of the largest and most popular pilgrimage destinations for Christians m Egypt.
Dayr Rifa is a complex of large reused rock-cut ancient Egyptian tombs. This site was excavated by W. Petrie in 1907, when a large number of Coptic, Greek, and Arabic manuscripts were found. The site seems to have been inhabited until the eighth century. Dayr Rifa comprises two churches situated in two ancient tombs. They are separated from each other by approximately one hundred meters.
The first church is dedicated to St. Theodore and the second to the Virgin Mary. The Church of St. Theodore was built inside a tomb with two columns at the entrance and has a small mud-brick structure roofed with a little dome. The church has o^faykal and included a smaller shrine of St. Theodore (Meinardus 2002: 227). This church is divided into sections: the women’s section, the men’s section, the khurus, and the haykal. In addition, there are two chambers sited on the north and the south of the haykal (fig. 27.3 D).
The second church, of the Holy Virgin, is sited inside a rock-cut tomb located to the left of the previous one. This church is divided into sections, such as the khurus, the men’s section, and the women’s section, by lattice screens. The church is ht by a hole in the roof just in front of the haykal. It includes a wooden inlaid screen before the haykal, while inside the haykal there is an altar dedicated to theVirgin Mary. The church is decorated with a number of icons.
Dayr al-Ganadla is also called the Monastery of the Virgin. It is composed of two churches built into old quarries. The older one is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and contains an altar dedicated to Abu Maqrufa. The monastery itself is sheltered by walls on three sides, while its western wall is formed by the cliff.
The Church of the Holy Virgin is built in an ancient quarry (fig. 27.3 A). Several wall paintings are found on the walls of the cave. All the architectural elements of the niches, walls, and ceilings in the church were painted, probably in the sixth century. These early murals were plastered over in the eleventh or twelfth century and repainted with a series of saints and angels. Also, on the north wall, part of the scene of the Communion of the Apostles is still preserved.
There are some comparative remarks to be made about the paintings and the architectural elements of this church. First of all, the gable-shaped niches cut into the walls are similar to the niches in the monasteries near Sohag, namely the Red and the White Monasteries. Second, the interiors of the niches are decorated with crosses, inscriptions, and ornamental borders consisting of branches and leaves that are similar to the patterns represented in the chapels at Bawit.
Third, the sculpture executed on the northern and eastern walls of the church is similar to the friezes found in the monastery of Apa Jeremias in Saqqara. Fourth, the acanthus leaves and the crosses in this church bear a resemblance to those in Dayr Abu Hinnis in Minya (Gabra, van Loon, and Sonbol 2012). Another interesting point of comparison is the presence of the Armenian salvation sign, which is visible on the wall of this church and also existed in the scene of Christ in Majesty in the White Monastery.
The altar screen is built of masonry and reused pieces of sculpture, decorative borders, and stelae, probably dating from the original church building. The eastern wall with the sanctuary is made of brickwork and probably dates back to the nineteenth century.
The second church, dating back to the 1860s, is dedicated to the Apostles and is located to the east of the old church. It has three domes and three haykals, dedicated to St. Macrobius (north), Ss. Peter and Paul (center), and St. George (south) (St. Mark’s Foundation 2011).
The rock-cut monasteries in this study were all ancient Egyptian quarries, but the churches of the Dayr Rifa cliff were ancient Egyptian tombs. The two quarries of Durunka and al-Ganadla were used from the Old Kingdom through to the Late Period, but the quarry site of Dayr Mar Mina is of unknown date (Harrell and Storemyr 2009).
The Middle Kingdom tombs of Dayr Rifa are typical of private tombs of that period, which were cut high in the cliff (Dodson 1991: 20). The style of their contents largely belongs to the Twelfth Dynasty and earlier (Petrie 1907).
The dating of the rock-cut monasteries around Asyut can be problematic and may need further research. However, hermits in the Asyut area began to settle in caves and ancient Egyptian rock-cut galleries and tombs around the fourth and fifth centuries, when monks used to live in a variety of places, without any uniform manner of settlement. For example, some solitary monks lived in caves, Eke St.Yuhanna al-Asyuti, while others Eved in monastic communities.
All either settled at the edge of the agricultural land or lived deep in the desert. This could be the beginning of monastic communities at that time. Dayr Durunka benefited from its renown as one of the stations that the Holy Family visited during its flight into Egypt. Traditionally, it is said to date from the first century (Coquin and Martin 1991b: 799).
The site of al-Ma‘abda village, with Dayr Mar Mina in the cliffs above, was occupied from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty through the seventh-century ad. As a result of excavation on the western edge of the town, many houses and a small temple were discovered (Cruz-Uribe 2004: 8).
Dayr al-Ganadla is decorated with two superimposed layers of wall paintings, the older probably dating from the sixth century and the upper layer from the twelfth to the thirteenth century. This evidence shows that the monastery was established about the fifth to the sixth century and existed during the twelfth to thirteenth centuries.
The monasteries in this study were founded on the basis of there being ready-excavated ‘rooms’ created by ancient Egyptian quarries in the limestone mountains. The Eastern Mountain of Asyut belongs to the Minya formation and the Western Mountain to the Durunka formation.
The monasteries located on the western side are dedicated to the Virgen Mary. Two of the monasteries studied are associated with the Flight into Egypt. The elevation of Dayr Mar Mina is a remarkable 170 meters in the cliff above ground level. Dayr al-Ganadla is unique with its rare wall paintings that were applied onto the rock-cut surface. Unfortunately, these paintings were unprofessionally restored. The churches of Dayr Rifa are situated in reused ancient Middle Kingdom tombs. Although the dating of the monasteries is problematic, most probably all can be dated to the fifth to the sixth century.
Finally, this chapter demonstrates the importance and the need for more sustained archaeological work in these rock-cut churches and monasteries, which are distinguished by their unique architecture. Modern methods of excavation, documentation, conservation, and restoration have been utilized at many Coptic sites, but the only rock-cut church to have benefited from this is Dayr Abu Hinnis. The further application of these methods to these sites will help to protect this important heritage from being lost.